Two recent research studies indicate that it’s a mixed bag.
Social anxiety is characterized by fears of being judged by others in an unfavorable light. Such concerns can become debilitating and lead someone to shun most or all social interactions. A person can consequently become caught in a catch-22, in which they deny themselves the chance to receive positive feedback from others, often increasing their sense of inadequacy.
Researchers Aaron Weidman and colleagues hypothesized that communicating with others on the Internet, such as social networking websites or chat rooms, might be viewed favorably by people high in social anxiety, due to the ability to remain relatively anonymous, have time to write responses (as opposed to “real-time” face-to-face communication), and not disclose one’s physical appearance.
For the first study, a group of undergraduate students answered questions gauging their level of social anxiety, self-disclosure, freedom from inhibition, and decreased social pressure. As expected, the results showed that socially anxious people were more comfortable with on-line communication than with in-person socializing and tended to share more about themselves on-line, and less off-line, than people with less social anxiety.
Next, the researchers investigated how higher levels of online communication affected the level of well-being for those struggling with social anxiety. Undergraduate students completed questionnaires measuring their social anxiety, depression, quality of life, and internet usage. Questions included “My interactions on the Internet have led me to feel more confident and comfortable when interacting with people face to face” and “Spending time on the Internet makes it easier for me to avoid interacting with people face to face”. The researchers were thus able to determine whether online communication facilitated or substituted for in-person interactions.
It turned out that individuals with social anxiety who frequently utilized online contact at the expense of in-person communication suffered from lower self-esteem and more depression than people who were less anxious socially. In other words, turning to the internet instead of engaging in face-to-face communication decreased well-being for socially anxious people, despite their feeling more comfortable with online contact.
As the researchers stated, several factors may be at play here:
- “First, the social comfort and self-disclosure reported by individuals higher in social anxiety in Study 1 may not translate into the formation of satisfying social bonds. Internet engagement may take a largely passive form, such as displaying greater quantities of information on an online social profile (e.g., Facebook).”
- “Second, attempted self-disclosure may cause individuals higher in social anxiety to anticipate rejection from others as a result”.
- “A third possibility is that social anxiety may manifest negatively online. Individuals higher in social anxiety tend to maintain a self-protective focus and to respond less to partners’ disclosures during conversations, thereby presenting as aloof and distant (Meleshko and Alden, 1993) and often causing the people with whom they interact to experience less satisfaction and positive affect (e.g., Heerey and Kring, 2007).”
What are some take-home messages?
- Communication is a two-way street. Although it may feel gratifying to post a photo or description of your latest trip to Europe or this morning’s delicious breakfast, also check in with other people and express interest in their lives.
- Expect the best. Instead of anticipating a negative response from people, believe that they will give you the benefit of the doubt. Also, keep in mind that as a general rule people aren’t scrutinizing you.
- Use online interactions in addition to, not instead of, face-to-face interactions. Actual in-person relationships are priceless. While the Internet has connected us in ways unimaginable two or three decades ago, the comfort of other people’s physical presence, with the accompanying non-verbal cues such as smiles or reassuring pats on the back, will never go out of style.
- Seek professional help if social anxiety is impairing your life. Individual psychotherapy, alone or in conjunction with medication, is often used to treat social anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can be very effective.
Heerey, E.A., & Kring, A.M. (2007). Interpersonal consequences of social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116: 125-134.
Melshko, K.G.A., & Alden, L.A. (1993). Anxiety and self-disclosure: toward a motivational model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64: 1000-1009.
Weidman, A.C., Fernandez, K.C., Levinson, C.A., Augustine, A.A., Larsen, R.J., & Rodebaugh, T.L. (2012). Compensatory internet use among individuals higher in social anxiety and its implications for well-being. Personal and Individual Differences, 53(3): 191-195.